Australian Labor Party

Australian Labor Party
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Friday, 10 October 2014

This is a watershed for Labor and the unions

This is a watershed for Labor and the unions

This is a watershed for Labor and the unions


Gough Whitlam's task in the 1970s was to
build distance between Labor and the "loony" left. Now Bill Shorten's
task is distance the party from the more corrupt unions, writes Barrie
John Faulkner's right of course. He usually
is. The former ALP Senate leader brings wisdom, decency and passion to
most battles that he chooses to fight.

Having said that, his call
on Tuesday for dramatic reform of Labor's internal structures will
probably fall well short of his ambitions simply because it threatens
the power and influence of faction leaders within the organisation.

points out that the trade unions represent 17 per cent of the workforce
and yet they have 50 per cent representation at ALP national
conferences. Former leader Simon Crean put it all on the line to reduce
that representation from 60 per cent. Faulkner now wants it reduced to
20 per cent. Imagine that, 60 per cent elected by the membership, 20 per
cent by electorate councils and just 20 per cent by the unions.

would come close to reflecting what party members want and think. And
that's what scares the powerbrokers, particularly from the right,
because they believe their own membership is out of step with broad
mainstream opinion, dangerously so for a mainstream political party.

too insists that reforming conference representation alone won't fix
the core problem. He wants Senate pre-selections, and those in all upper
houses around the states, to go to a full statewide ballot of all party

That would really break the back of union influence and
put a stop once and for all to the unsavoury antics of a few who carve
up pre-selections according to whose turn it is among the major unions.

Tinkering won't get the party there. Only Faulkner's big bang theory, or a series of incremental big bangs, will.

in the Labor Party, partly out of self-interest, say the public has no
appetite for the party constantly talking about itself. We'll see how
much of an appetite they have for that conversation - the links between
the party and the unions - when the Royal Commission into union
corruption brings downs its findings on the cusp of a federal election.
Tony Abbott is good at that kind of thing.

You can argue all day
as to whether the Royal Commission was effectively asking for an
extension. Even Bill Shorten conceded this week there was "conjecture"
on that point.

And you can mark the Government down because it
took days to accede to the union corruption extension and months to do
likewise with the child abuse Royal Commission, but the fact remains
both are doing essential work.

Commissioner Dyson Heydon said in his letter to the Attorney General:

the inquiry ... has revealed evidence of criminal conduct which
includes widespread instances of physical and verbal violence, cartel
conduct, secondary boycotts, contempt of court and other institutional
orders, and the encouragement of others to commit these contempts.

officials appear to regard their unions as having immunity not only
from the norms and sanctions of the Australian legal system, but also
from any social or community standard shared by other Australians.
them more time, and you can be sure the commission will turn up even
more evidence of wrongdoing that is ultimately embarrassing to Labor by

Shorten has already taken baby steps, in particular his
insistence that non-union members be free to join the party. But the
Royal Commission must surely signal that a watershed has been reached.
Dramatic reform is now needed.

Gough Whitlam's career is instructive in this sense.

is often misunderstood about Whitlam is that he did so much of his best
work well before he became Prime Minister. No single individual in the
history of the Labor Party until then or since has done more to
modernise the party - and he did that from opposition before 1972 - when
leaders have limited clout.

Whitlam gave the parliamentary party
increased powers over both the industrial and organisational wing,
albeit from a low historical base. He did that by making changes to the
National Executive.

To get there, he put everything on the line,
even his leadership as he did in 1969 when he resigned as part of his
push against the left of the party. He faced a challenge from Jim
Cairns, and won, and that was a significant victory over the industrial
wing and the hardliners, especially in Victoria. That's why he did it,
and that's what he achieved.

Then in 1971 he led the federal
intervention into the Victorian branch when supporters of his, like Bob
Hawke and Clyde Holding, prevailed over the radical left as it was then.
That was high risk stuff, every bit as risky as throwing his leadership
open two years earlier. But he took it on and won, and right on the eve
of an election victory. He transformed the party from one that the
unions used as a protest organisation, to one that was a government in

Perhaps the need for reform in the late '60s and early
'70s was more urgent. Perhaps not. Can Labor afford to wait until the
Royal Commission reports to find out?

Whitlam's task was to build
distance between the party and the "loony" left. Shorten's is to build
the same distance between the party and the more corrupt unions.

said this week when commenting on the extension to the Royal Commission
that "I think the government needs to be very careful that it's not
playing politics here".

Why should they? The politics is all with them.

Barrie Cassidy is the presenter of the ABC program Insiders. View his full profile here.

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